We were originally scheduled to take this trip in mid-late March, but it was cancelled by the responses to Covid. Rescheduling, I would have preferred a Spring date again– to see waterfalls in action (post-snow melt), for longer days and warmer weather (but not too warm!). But I won’t have a Spring Break in 2021, so this was the best we could do. I’d also like to take another trip to northern Arizona and southern Utah– hopefully soon!
We flew in/out of Phoenix using Southwest. (In March, it would have been non-stop, but it became one-stop by December.) From there, we rented a car from Sixt and drove 1900 miles in a counter-clockwise loop, covering the southern two-thirds of the state. (I can recommend Sixt, except they’re trying to charge me $98 for a few gallons of gas, so we’ll see how that works out.)
Overall, I’d say this was a top-tier trip for us– not as good as SF to Glacier in 2016 (hard to beat that!), but probably a smidgen better than our trips to New York State in 2011 and to SD and eastern CO in 2012. (We’ve taken many other smaller trips that I’ve blogged about if you’re interested: Chicago, NC/SC twice, Atlanta/Florida, Michigan twice (mostly southern and northern), and St. Louis/Memphis.)
We started Day 1 in Maricopa with Ernie Adams’ Dwarf Car Museum. It was terrific (and free), even if you’re not into cars. But for Daniel (who loves cars and building stuff), it was in his top three for the trip. Even without meeting Ernie, it’s worth the stop, but getting to talk with him added so much. He has built small (2/3rds) replicas of classic cars from scratch. The wildest part to me is how he builtthe wheels (and the decorative spokes). The cars are street legal and drive 70-80 MPH. The best part: Daniel got to go on a ride with him for a few miles. Good times!
On the way to Tucson, we stopped at Casa Grande’s Neon Sign Park. Probably worth it in the evening/night, but in the daytime, I can’t recommend it. From there, we went to Tucson and toured Saguaro NP (West) and the Sonoran Desert Museum (including many native animals). The landscape in general and the cactus in particular were fascinating. We finished the evening with a mini-hike in one of the mountain passes between Saguaro and Tucson. Seeing the sunset from a mountain was a great way to end the first day. (As an aside, make sure to order the National Park Pass if you’re going to see enough NP’s.)
On Day 2, we were north of Tucson, starting with Biosphere 2– a riveting combination of science, economics, and sociology. The scientific work was compelling and the effort to live in a dome was provocative. From there, we visited DeGrazia’s Gallery in the Sun– a tribute to the artist’s work. The gallery itself is a work of art, but details of his life and the work on display are all worth the stop. From there, I’d hope to hike Seven Falls, but found out that the falls were dry. (If you end up going to Seven Falls, make sure to take the last left instead of traipsing through Bear Canyon.) So instead, we did an 8-9 mile hike at Sabino Canyon (up the road and then down on the Phoneline trail). This was another highlight for Daniel. But Tonia was struggling that day, so she took the tram back. We finished with a drive toward the top of Mt. Lemmon along the Catalina/Sky Island Scenic By-way (a long way– probably too long to be worth it), but before sunset, we made it to a number of lookouts including the awesome Windy Point Vista.
On Day 3, we hit a number of smaller spots: 1.) Mini-Time Machine Museum has a ton of miniatures. Think dollhouses, but extended to model other sorts of houses, construction, etc. 2.) Franklin Auto Museum has tons of old Franklin cars. We’ve seen a bunch of cars and this was fine but not exciting. I’d only recommend it if you’re really into cars or modestly into cars and haven’t seen much previously. 3.) Ignite Sign Art Museum was solid/good, with a number of “neon” signs (mostly argon, it turns out), including some history and interesting live demonstrations available at times. 4.) Garden of Gethsemane was good (more interesting because it was made from junk) and free. 5.) St. Xavier Mission is beautiful and will etch on my mind since it was originally in Mexico and currently serves a Native-American population. For lunch, we hit El Sinaloense Hot Dog Cart (excellent and memorable). While in Tucson, we also enjoyed In-n-Out Burgers/Shakes (between solid and very good) and Filiberto’s (tons of food).
On Day 4, we started with the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, south of Tucson. It was cool in its own right, but especially as a reminder to older folks (and a lesson for younger folks) about the transcendent threat of the USSR and nuclear weapons in the previous generation. (Leaving that behind has dramatically changed US politics!) From there, we went to Chiricahua NP– probably the highlight of the trip for me. (I had seen the Grand Canyon and how can you put it on any kind of ranking anyway!) Amazing rock formations, especially in the climactic Heart of the Rocks Loop, but a really nice hike overall. The easier way to do the 7.3 miles is to drive to Echo Canyon parking and then use the Ed Riggs, Mushroom Rock, and Balanced Rock trails to reach the HoR Loop. You can add Inspiration Point for one more mile (with a cool surprise at the end; Joseph did that mistakenly, ended up with an unscheduled run, and enhanced our prayer life). If you want a different path on the way back and can handle 2.2 more miles, you can finish the circle with Sarah Deming, Upper Rhyolite and Echo Canyon. We then drove to Bisbee to spend the night at the quirky and memorable Shady Dell Vintage Trailer Park (surprised the kids with this!).
On Day 5, we started with the Queen Mine Tour in Bisbee. Pete gave us a great tour– definitely worth a stop. Then we back-tracked a bit to Tombstone and Kartchner Caverns. (The back-tracking was necessary since Kartchner did not have tour openings on the weekend, with reduced capacity due to Covid. Ideally, you’d go from Titan Missile to Kartchner, Tombstone, and Bisbee– and then head to Chiricahua the next day.) Tombstone is ok for a walk-around and casual shopping. The OK Corral might be good but we skipped it as too touristy. (We had a really good breakfast at the OK Cafe. Museum of the Strange might be good but it was closed. And if you’re really into roses, you can pay $5 to check out the world’s largest rose tree/bush.) At Kartchner, we did the Big Room tour with Ben as an able tour guide. The caves there are “well-decorated” and really well-preserved. If Mammoth Cave is like the Grand Canyon; then Kartchner is like Bryce and Zion– smaller but much prettier, with staggering formations of various (rare) types. And since it was discovered much more recently, they have taken great care to preserve the caves.
From there, we drove a long way to Holbrook. The drive was at night and in the middle of nowhere– and the sky was clear– so it was our best opportunity to see an amazing starry night. In Holbrook, we enjoyed another quirky lodging: the Wigwam Village Motel. For Day 6, we saw the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert– starting at the south entrance and driving north through the park. Again, a unique/strange landscape. I’d recommend the overlooks at Agate Bridge, Blue Mesa Trail, and the Painted Desert Inn / Kachina Point. We also rolled north to Canyon de Chelly– one of my favorite canyons and maybe the best per unit of attention it receives. Then, we spent the night in Winslow– made famous by the Eagles’ song, Take It Easy.
For Day 7, we tried to see Grand Falls, but it was closed because of the Navaho tribe’s trouble with and response to Covid. It’s supposed to be awesome, but it was dry anyway, so not a huge loss. (If you go during the wet season, be careful of actual vs. on-line directions.) We moved on to Walnut Canyon NP– a really nice little canyon with a few good rim views and a short, moderate trail to hike (one of Joseph’s highlights from the trip). Then, we did a few trails at Sunset Crater Volcano NP and finished the loop to see Wapatki’s pueblos. (We were told that it was an excellent location for seeing stars, but we didn’t take the time to do this.) That got us two nights in Flagstaff.
Day 8 was Grand Canyon (South Rim). We hiked 1.5 miles down the Bright Angel trail to the first restroom. (FWIW, the Kaibab Trail is supposed to be more difficult and more scenic, but it was harder to access with Covid restrictions.) The hike is fine, but more of a “do it to say you did it” than enjoying the sites. The vast nature of the GC makes it unforgettable but difficult/impossible to reduce to pictures. And its size means that the hikes are not all that scenic: you hike for a long time to get similar views. Walking the trail along the rim– or driving to scenic overlooks on the rim– is also a must. Of course, the whole thing was spectacular and staggeringly awesome!
From there, Day 9 moved into the beautiful Sedona region. Where the Grand Canyon is magnificent but beyond photos, Sedona is made for the camera’s eye. Starting with a drive through Oak Creek Canyon (on 89A), we passed by Slide Rock SP (which looked great if the weather had been warmer) and ended up at Devil’s Bridge Trail– a beautiful four-mile hike that ends in a nice Natural Bridge (smaller than Kentucky’s but more picturesque). From there, we went to the Chapel of the Holy Cross– a beautiful Catholic church in a wonderful setting. The odd thing: looking down from the church, you see an impressive house at 503 Chapel (apparently, the dude who started Lasik surgery). We considered the Cathedral Rock Trail (at the next roundabout—Back o Beyond Rd)– looked like great scenery, but too steep after our earlier hike. We drove out of Sedona on the Red Rock Scenic By-Way and went to Montezuma Castle NP– an impressive “apartment-style” five-story Native American dwelling in a cliffside. We saw another pueblo at Tuzigoot NP. (This one is more famous, but Wapatki is better and renders Tuzigott largely redundant.) We finished our tour with the Audrey Shaft Headframe Park in Jerome– a mining shaft with depth almost doubling the height of the Empire State Building, before spending the night at the surprisingly nice Little Daisy Motel in Cottonwood. (For what it’s worth, we ate dinner at a Moose Lodge’s fish fry!)
Day 10 was lighter. We did a little shopping in Cottonwood before catching the Copper Art Museum in Clarksdale– really good on the history, art and science of copper. Then we finished with a little gem that I had never heard about– a highlight of the trip that is grossly under-rated: Watson Lake. Then, we drove back to Phoenix and saw an old friend from our neighborhood– good times and glad to see Peyton with a good husband and two cute kids! (If we had done anything in Phoenix, it might have been the Desert Botanical Garden, but maybe that would have been redundant with the Sonoran Museum in Tucson? There is a “Bat-Cave” that looks fascinating but is only open May-October. And the area is surrounded by mountains if you want to hike: Camelback, Piestewa Peak, Pinnacle Peak, and Superstition were all mentioned by friends. For food, friends also recommended MacAlpine’s, Fry Bread House, Organ Stop Pizza, and Backyard Tacos– make sure to order the chips.)
Overall, a great trip and terrific memories in a unique landscape. It should definitely be on your list. Enjoy!
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